Not long ago, this quarry, 40 kilometers outside Prague, held a carefully built fake town called the Two Rivers. Then, a few days back, the producers and set dressers of Amazon’s The Wheel of Time burned it down. The town’s inn, an intricately rendered two-story building, is now blackened, its left side plunged into spiky rubble: Smoke machines give the impression that it is still smoldering. There are holes in roofs, artfully destroyed beams. Every house—interior and exterior—has been charred enough so that it shows on camera. The actors who wander the Two Rivers are made up to match. Rosamund Pike, who starred in Gone Girl, is smudged with soot. Rain has begun to come down in earnest, pooling in the muddy streets and making the extras and the stuntmen shiver. Michael McElhatton, who played Roose Bolton on Game of Thrones and is playing a character called Tam al’Thor on The Wheel of Time, sits on a stump in the middle of it all in a big down jacket, staring at nothing in particular.
It’s November 2019, and the production—comprising hundreds of, and on some days nearly a thousand, people—is filming the end of the first episode of what everyone hopes will be a television show that runs for, well: six seasons? Eight? A show that will be as epic and sensational and ubiquitous as Game of Thrones once was. On one side of the green, a camera sits on a long dolly track; another camera operator stalks the scene, taking various close-ups. The episode’s veteran television director, Uta Briesewitz, is arranging four of the show’s main cast of relatively unknown young actors in a moment of reckoning: Pike’s character, a woman with mysterious powers, has arrived to awaken them and set them on their way. “Your life isn’t going to be what you thought,” Pike intones, as various cameras circle her. Pike runs through her speech, which is heavy with exposition for both the characters and the audience, a few times. “Can I do one more?” she asks Briesewitz, while apologizing to the extras scattered about. “I think that one got a bit phony.”
Finally, Briesewitz calls “cut.” Pike retreats from the weather into a nearby tent. “It’s not like working with David Fincher,” she says to me, referring to the Gone Girl director’s penchant for shooting 70 takes of a scene. The production is huge and moving at warp speed. Pike has to know things backward and forward. She has to get her lines out as dozens of crew members and background actors get soaked in the cold rain and actual living horses wander around while makeup women with transparent plastic bags dart in and out to touch up extras and guys with smoke canisters paddle mist into the edges of shots. This set they’re on—not just a few hollow façades set up to create the impression of reality, but real buildings, in every direction—is giant, immersive, and won’t last past this episode.
Want to make the next Game of Thrones? This is how it begins. Viewers have become accustomed to a kind of scale, or realism, that creeps toward the actually real. “It’s not like we can go say, ‘Oh, you know, Game of Thrones, season one, they only spent this,’ ” Mike Weber, an executive producer of The Wheel of Time, says. “The audience expectation is coming off of the last season of Game of Thrones, not the first season.” For the first season of Thrones, HBO spent about $6 million an episode, a number that steadily climbed from there. Amazon and The Wheel of Time? They’re starting at upward of a reported $10 million per episode—for eight total, the first of which will begin streaming in November—just to get out of the gate.